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Archive for the ‘Art and Culture/Cinema/Travel’ Category

Bonfire of Illusions: The Twin Crises of the Liberal World-Alex Callinicos

Posted by admin On October - 4 - 2013 Comments Off on Bonfire of Illusions: The Twin Crises of the Liberal World-Alex Callinicos


Bonfire of Illusions: The Twin Crises of the Liberal World
Polity Press, Cambridge, 2010, 179pp, £14.99 pb

Reviewed by Daniel Whittall


Daniel Whittall is studying for a PhD in historical and political geography at Royal Holloway, University of London.

ReviewWith Bonfire of Illusions, Alex Callinicos adds to the ever-burgeoning literature seeking to explore and explain the present crisis of capitalism. Unlike many other volumes on the economic crisis, however, Callinicos emphasises the need to move beyond purely economic explanations both of how the crisis came about, and of what its eventual outcomes might be. Instead, he urges that readers must acknowledge ‘the perplexities of a world in dramatic flux both economically and geopolitically’ (18). On the whole, the book offers a valuable introduction for readers seeking to grapple with these perplexities.

Central to Callinicos’s account is an insistence on the connections between the economic and the geopolitical spheres. The book is structured into two main sections, bookended by an Introduction and Conclusion. In his Introduction, Callinicos makes the case for the connections between the economic and the geopolitical, insisting that the Russian war on Georgia in August 2008 and the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September that same year need to be understood as part of the same historical process. Whilst he casually theorises this period as representing an ‘epochal event,’ courtesy of an all-too-easy reference to the work of Alain Badiou, it is clear that Callinicos understands this fusion of geopolitics with economics as standing for ‘the end of the post-Cold War era,’ represented at its height by Francis Fukuyama’s notion of ‘the end of history’ (1-2). Both the Russian war on Georgia and the collapse of Lehman Brothers are emblematic, in Callinicos’s account, of ‘the apparent weakening or even demise of US hegemony’ (5).

The first, and most substantial, element of Callinicos’s argument is presented in section one, ‘Finance Humbled’. It is customary to begin analyses of the recent economic strife with a focus on finance, and in particular on the various processes of ‘financialization’ through which that sector came to dominate advanced market economies. Callinicos does not stray from this model, but he does produce an account of financialization which is as good as any other I’ve read. He departs from mainstream understanding by explaining that the process of financialization hinges on at least three different meanings of that term. The first is the notion that finance has become the dominant force economically. The second is the idea that finance has become increasingly autonomous from the rest of the economy, and that this has enabled the proliferation of different financial actors, including hedge funds and other elements within the ‘shadow banking sector.’ And thirdly, financialization also means ‘the integration of a wider range of agents in financial markets,’ including banks themselves, the shadow bankers, various capitalist enterprises, and even working class households, none of which are expected to get by any longer without reliance on finance in one form or another.

This tripartite definition of financialization is significant, allowing us to understand better the complex role which financialization plays in the global economy. Indeed, as Callinicos points out, these multiple and unstable definitions of financialization illustrate that ‘[t]he greater the weight of finance, the more then would it destabilize [sic] the economy as a whole’ (34-5). In order to examine the instabilities of finance capitalism, Callinicos evaluates the theoretical resources offered by the work of Hyman Minsky, F.A. von Hayek, and David Harvey. From Minsky, Callinicos draws his insights into the inherent instability of financial markets, whilst criticising Minsky’s failure to interrogate the relationship between finance and the broader capitalist economy. From Hayek Callinicos, focusing on the earliest work by that renowned theorist of neoliberalism, gleans the insight that credit-driven economic expansion becomes unsustainable over time, producing ‘destabilizing [sic] booms’ (44), though he inevitably criticises Hayek’s rejection of state intervention to prevent any subsequent bust. And from Harvey, as well as from Marx, Callinicos derives the insight that such economic crises as we presently inhabit are not extreme events, but are in fact inherent to the functioning of the capitalist system. This last insight allows Callinicos to insist that the current crisis, whilst manifesting itself in the financial sector, did not necessarily begin there, and that instead it ‘exposes the depths of the contradictions that have been at work in the entire process of capital accumulation and not merely, as Keynes and Minsky would contend, the dysfunctions of markets’ (50). From this, Callinicos argues that the present crisis represents the results of three parallel processes – a long-term crisis of overaccumulation and profitability; a chronically unstable financial system; and an increased reliance on credit bubbles as drivers of economic expansion.

The discussion here is detailed, and the arguments persuasive, except perhaps Callinicos’ deployment of Michael Kidron’s ‘permanent arms economy’ thesis – that Cold War arms spending kept profitability in this period artificially high – to explain the lack of any serious recession between 1949-73 (52). There are strengths and weaknesses to Kidron’s analysis, but Callinicos presents it as though the case were already settled, with no discussion of the drawbacks to Kidron’s thesis, nor the fact that Kidron himself would later distance himself from it. Aside from this point, Callinicos offers a solid theorisation of the ways in which the present economic crisis exposed ‘the systemic contradictions with which global capitalism has been struggling for decades’ (94).

The second part of Callinicos’s book, ‘Empire Confined’, develops his emphasis on the importance of the Russian war with Georgia within the context of the present crisis. The argument here is that the economic crisis and subsequent government bailouts undermine arguments about the irrelevance of the state in the neoliberal world, and that the Russia-Georgia war was emblematic of this ‘return of the state’. Callinicos charts the ways in which the financial crisis undermined the authority of supposedly international organisations, such as the EU, whilst nation-states pursued their own agendas and initiatives. Callinicos sees in this process ‘a shift in the balance of power between the state and capital’ (102), with the latter forced to acknowledge its reliance on the former. However, whilst this may have been the case in the immediate aftermath of the Lehman Brothers collapse, the return to business-as-usual since then might lead us to question Callinicos’s assumption that this shift was in any way permanent. One only has to think of the excessive significance attributed to the need to ‘stabilise the markets’ through ‘strong government’ following the recent British election and subsequent hung Parliament to recognise that the market still holds a considerable degree of influence over state powers.

Nevertheless, Callinicos’s argument that the Russian war on Georgia was a response to US efforts to expand NATO influence into Eastern and Central Europe is persuasive, as is his argument that this moment stood for the fight-back of state capitalism – in the form of Russian military strength – against the globalizing forces of international Capital represented in militarised form through NATO. Unfortunately, Callinicos spends far too little time discussing the Russia-Georgia war, or its wider geopolitical implications, for his argument to have the weight which it ought to. Indeed, the war and its geopolitical implications take up a mere 11 pages (106-116), after which Callinicos shifts to a discussion of the threat to US hegemony offered by China. Whilst there is little to quibble with in Callinicos’s discussion of this confrontation, and indeed much to praise in his examination of the challenges which are likely to face both the US and China, the fact that these are affected very little by the specific events of the Russia-Georgia war only serves to detract from the central significance placed on this conflict by Callinicos at the start of his book. Whilst Callinicos acknowledges that the financial crash and Russia-Georgia war are of unequal weight in significance, the fact that the latter is given such a short discussion, and that it serves primarily as a springboard for a discussion of the longer processes underwriting US hegemony and its relationship to China, only undermines Callinicos’s assertion that the events of 2008 were of central geopolitical, as well as economic, importance.

In his conclusion, Callinicos argues for ‘system change’ in response to the crises in the ‘Liberal World.’ He focuses in particular on the argument for ‘democratic planning’ of the economy, an important idea in the push towards greater economic democracy and a direct challenge to the work of autonomist thinkers such as Hardt and Negri and John Holloway. Again, however, he spends too little time on important and complex problems for them to be developed in a fully persuasive manner. This drawback is most evident in his discussion of the system of ‘universal direct income’ payable to all citizens as a challenge to the power of the capitalist labour market. Treating such a complex system in one paragraph, with no discussion of the complexities of coordinating international action nor of the challenges and opposition which such a system would come up against, leaves it feeling lightweight to say the least.

Despite these criticisms, Bonfire of Illusions is an important book for anybody wanting an introduction to how Marxist political economy can help to understand the times in which we live. It draws on the work of a diverse array of thinkers, engaging fully and constructively with a wide variety of non-Marxists. Whilst it ultimately fails to fully live up to its promise of linking the economic and the geopolitical strands of analysis, that is not to say that the effort to do so was not itself worthwhile.


Arab elites push back political Islam-Ramzy Baroud

Posted by admin On August - 8 - 2013 1 COMMENT


Seasons come and go, yet Arab countries remain in ongoing turmoil. They called it an “Arab Spring”, but even if that “spring” ever existed in the form that the media portrayed it, it never really lasted and has now morphed into something far more complex.

But there is no “Islamic winter” either, a foreboding term favored by Israeli policymakers and analysts. The Islamic dimension of Arab rebellions – some of which turned into bloody civil and regional wars – should have been palpable from the start to anyone who understands political realities beyond their usefulness as a propaganda tool.

Islam has and will always be a component in shaping collective understanding of Arab nations. Political Islam is at the heart of the
ongoing strife, which is in some ways a manifestation of a century-long struggle between Islam as a platform of political expression, governance and jurisprudence against Western trends.

Throughout history there has not been one successful union between Islam and the Arab ruling classes – successful in the sense that it contributed to progress, rights, and prosperity for all. Islamists were either co-opted or conflict reigned. The atrociousness of the results of these conflicts varied depending on how clever Arab rulers were in their management. In Jordan, low-level discord has always existed between Islamic opposition parties and the ruling class. It teetered between partial inclusion of Islamic forces in a parliament that operated with little authority and occasional spats or political crises of little consequence.

However, not all failed experiments came at a relatively low cost. In Algeria, an attempt at harmonization went terribly wrong. The 1991 Algerian civil war lasted for over a decade and resulted in the death of up to 200,000 people. Things were not meant to be so bloody, as it had begun with something rather promising: an election. The ruling National Liberation Front canceled elections after the first round, fearing what seemed like an assured loss at the hands of the Islamic Salvation Front.

The promise turned into Algeria’s second-worst nightmare, the first being its even bloodier 1954-1962 struggle for liberation from colonial France. At the time, all the ingredients were in place for a complete disaster. There was a strong army running the country through a deeply enriched ruling party, an emboldened political opposition that was about to achieve political power using the ballot box, and a thoroughly frustrated public eager to move beyond the tired slogans and economic disenfranchisement.

Additionally, a radicalized generation of youth existed as they had serious doubts about the sincerity of the ruling class in the first place. The canceling of the elections was the final straw, and bloodletting seemed as though it were the only common denominator. Even now, Algeria is still entrapped by the consequences of that very conflict as it sits at a political standstill without much of a roadmap to anywhere.

Despite the need to avoid making generalizations, knowing how some media tend to lump all Arabs and Muslims into one convenient discourse, the similarities between the Algerian and Egyptian experiences are uncanny.

On January 25, 2011, Egyptians revolted with the hope that they could finally break the chokehold of the ruling elites, the National Democratic Party, with its adjoining business class and the army, which operated its own massive economy within the larger, haggard, Egyptian economy.

But by extension, the revolution could have targeted the larger regional and international conglomerate that aided and abetted the Hosni Mubarak regime and his massively corrupt power apparatus. Indeed, without an elaborate benefactors’ network, the United States being in the lead, Mubarak would have never managed to sustain his reign for over three decades. Egyptians, however, barely had the time or the resources to develop much of a foreign policy agenda, as their revolution faced too many obstacles and decided attempts at sabotage.

On one hand the army was still in charge, although it branded itself as the guardian of the nation and its revolution by using the same old corrupt media. On the other, there was never a cohesive structure that would allow Egyptians to translate their collective aspiration into anything tangible.

The only available forum was that of elections and referendums, and every single one was squarely and democratically won by Islamic parties. Fair and transparent elections maybe, but their results allowed the Mubarak regime to resurface.

Using its never dismantled infrastructure, notwithstanding a most corrupt media owned by powerful businessmen, and the old regime managed to turn the revolution against itself. It cleverly sold the June 30, 2013, protests as if they were a call to correct the wrong path taken after the January 25, 2011, revolt. In a strange turn of events, millions of those who protested against Mubarak were back protesting against democratically-elected Mohammed Morsi, allying with the very political forces that wrecked the country for many years, calling on the same army, and siding with the “baltajiya” – thugs who terrorized protestors merely two-and-half years ago.

Egypt is now taking its first steps towards becoming another Algeria during the civil war. Do the coup leaders truly understand the repercussions of what they have done?

Tunisia, that small nation that inspired the world in December 2010 is not far behind in that sad saga. A recent assassination, this time of nationalist politician Mohamed Brahmi, followed an earlier assassination of another high profiled politician, Chokri Belaid. Tunisia stands divided between those who want to topple the government, and those who insist on its democratic right to govern. Either way, there is no doubt that some suspect hands are trying to push Tunisia into an abyss that is being marketed as Islamists versus secularists.

Syria has been the most bloody example by far. Although in the Syrian civil war, the stakes quickly became much higher, and along with the pertaining discussion, the war rapidly took on a dangerous sectarian conflict whose implications are felt near and far.

In some sad way, the Arab regimes are making gains. Some are doing so through war, others through military coups, and some are actively plotting in hopes of making their move soon. As costly as the revolts have been, however, one thing is for sure – the old Middle East paradigm of powerful elites backed by formidable allies oppressing weak peoples seems unlikely to ever be resurrected.

Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is: My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press).

(Copyright 2010 Ramzy Baroud.)


Dialogues with history – K. SATCHIDANANDAN

Posted by admin On June - 22 - 2013 Comments Off on Dialogues with history – K. SATCHIDANANDAN


Subodh Kerkar’s installations are meditations on the colonial past, nature and history where the boundary between art and life stands disrupted. By K. SATCHIDANANDAN

HISTORY is not necessarily or even primarily about rulers and reforms, but about people and civilisations and the dialogues of cultures across boundaries. And art, being a part of this dialogue, can hardly overlook history and what it does to our lives. But art also goes beyond history by establishing organic connections with the larger world of nature. Subodh Kerkar’s installations are a commentary on both history and nature, and “Pepper Cross”, his current show in Kochi, organised by ArtEstate at Pepper House, once a godown for spices, which provides the precise ambience the works on show demand, brilliantly bears this out.

“As an artist, I have a special relationship with the ocean. The ocean is my master and my muse.” This is how Subodh Kerkar prefaces his show. The ocean, he admits, has nurtured his dreams, aspirations and fantasies, his whole creativity: “The ocean is both inside and outside my creations.” In the works on show, the artist explores the ocean’s role as a medium of cultural exchange and diffusion. In a sense, he participates in that history of civilisations which originated and flourished on the seashore and impacted one another by travelling across oceans. Our navigational history goes back to the days of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Lothal in Gujarat had trade relations with the Arabs and the Africans, and the port of Muziris in Kerala, now being excavated at Pattanam, throve on trade with Egyptian and Roman cities right from the 3rd century BCE. It was between the 15th and 17th centuries C.E. that Europeans began to explore Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas. They had two missions: one was trade, especially of gold, silver, opium and spices like pepper and cardamom, and the second was the spreading of Christianity.

It was during these voyages of adventure that Bartholomew Diaz from Portugal reached the Indian Ocean in 1488 C.E., voyaging along the Atlantic coast of Africa and Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to land at Beypore in Calicut in 1498. Columbus’ Indian mission, sponsored by the Spanish monarch, that took him instead to America, also happened in the same era, in 1492, when the American Indians “discovered Columbus on the sea”, to follow the Indian perception of the foolish adventure. That was the time when objects, methods, concepts, scientific discoveries and ideas began to travel between Europe and Asia and the first phase of globalisation, followed by colonialism, really began. Subodh Kerkar, in this exhibition, focusses on the exchange between Portugal and India, with Goa at the centre. It was the Portuguese who introduced the art of baking bread, grafting mangoes and of distilling spirits in India as also the many fruits and vegetables now popular in our country, like potato, tomato, chilly, pineapple and cashew, while they took pepper and other spices from India. Subodh Kerkar’s installations are “mnemonic devices of history”, as the artist himself qualifies them. This is by no means to say that the artist is just “representing”, “mimicking” or “reproducing” these objects. He invests them with a unique civilisational and artistic significance.

For example, his series called “Pepper Cross” brings trade, represented by pepper, and religion, represented by the cross, together while also referring to the sea by using the actual hull of a century-old boat and oars, thus making a complex, if tense, symbol of cultural symbiosis. There is also an element of ritual here as one of the crosses is represented as a relic inside a wooden frame that turns it into a little icon whose divinity comes from pepper as well as from Christ, the sea connecting them. No loud heresy is meant here, but one cannot miss a subtle play of humour that hints at the way colonialism worked in an economic-religious matrix by exchanging Christ for pepper, both of which were anointed by the sea and propelled by ambition.

A similar fusion happens when he creates two series of huge chillies, one made with truck tyre and painted red, metamorphosing them into something else as chillies now are transported by trucks moving on tyres, and another, covered with many-hued Indian textiles, indicating indigenising of the imported product. This play can also be seen in installations like “Jezu-Krishna” where Krishna’s crown wears a cross in place of the peacock feather, signifying a conversation between two systems of worship, or “Colonial Rock n’ Roll”, where a toilet paper roll is placed on a swinging frame, representing the impact of colonialism at the other end of the mouth too!

Again, there are the 15 cotton pods made of fibreglass and steel mounted on a wooden podium, one of which has a sheep head on it to remind us of John Mandeville’s perception in 1350 of the cotton tree as one that bears “tiny lambs” at the end of the pliable branches “that bend down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungry”. The artist decorates the pods with patterns of crochet as the technique of knitting and lacework was introduced in India by the Portuguese. There is, too, the typical butterfly-shaped bread, baked for the first time by the Portuguese in the Goan village of Majorda that the Hindus refused to eat in the beginning as the dough was fermented and thus “polluted”. Eating it or drinking from a well where a crumb was thrown was enough to outcast a Hindu and turn him Christian. Subodh Kerkar’s bread sculpture bears on its surface the sea routes of Bartholomew Diaz, Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama.

“The Chicken Cafreal”, represented by a rooster made from tyre, is again taken from culinary history, as Cafreal was originally a preparation with chicken made by African slaves in Portuguese army camps. It is also meant to remind the spectator of the “Rooster of Barcelos”, a national souvenir of Portugal: the rooster who, after being roasted, stood and crowed in order to prove the innocence of a young man sentenced wrongly to death.

The horse trade of ancient India—the Arab horses were a symbol of abundance and prestige for the royalty and the gentry—is symbolised by horseshoe patterns originally created on the shores of the old Goapattanam, famous for horse trade, with sea shells collected from the same beach. Indigo, another major export from India since the times of the Indus Valley Civilisation, is represented by rocks covered with indigo and also by the Portuguese fruits and vegetables like cashew, chilly, capsicum, potato and pineapple made with indigo.

There are, too, many photographs of installations Subodh Kerkar created on Goan beaches like “The Moon and the Tides” and “The Sea-horse Delivering Crescent Moons”, both made of seashells, and a whole huge circle filled with real red chillies. The “Earth Bowl” (Prithveekund) is another such work, a bowl carved out in a ramp-like rock butting into the sea where water collects during the high tide: water that dissolves all differences and predicts the possibility of one world.

Subodh Kerkar has radicalised public art in India in more ways than one. First, he involves nature and environment in a big way as land artists do. It is possible he has been inspired by artists like Richard Long, Andy Golsworthy, Michel Hazer, Robert Smithson and others; but he creates his own concept of an indigenous art using local materials and the available environment. He uses his art for a conversation with the elements where water and earth are primary. He invests the quotidian with layers of meaning, producing an art that is profoundly conceptual, thus joining artists like Anish Kapoor and Subodh Gupta in reconceptualising the world.

The way he uses materials like wood, glass, metals, seashells, rubber and fibreglass and plays with light in many of his installations—like with the crater he creates on the beach with a copperplate and light inside, creating a mysterious volcanic effect—is very untraditional. The artist de-specifies materials by using them in unexpected contexts and combinations. Art here does not become mere art or mere life. Art and non-art become indiscernible in this new aesthetic practice. He, in fact, disrupts the boundaries between art and other practices of life and unsettles traditional patterns. Art here moves from subjects to gestures. Memory plays a major role in this art, especially historical and civilisational memory. It could even be nature’s memory as in some of his works with wood and cut glass that reflect the memory of water.

Subodh Kerkar also uses his art to make political statements as when he uses hundreds of sarees hung in the sky above paddy fields to draw attention to the plight of the migrant labourers of Goa, the majority of whom are women; when he covers entire trees with newsprint to point to the peril of deforestation or when he creates an installation with 600 Tibetan prayer-flags to make us take notice of the Tibetan issue.

Art with Subodh Kerkar also becomes culture learning as he studies the ingression of alien cultures with their impact on the receiving cultures. Even while being anti-colonial, he tries to objectively grasp the meaning of such influences, looking at them without prejudice and accepting them as historical facts that can hardly be reversed—hence his objection to revivalism that once got him into trouble with the right-wing government in Goa. His is an art that draws attention to the process as much as the product, like in a Brechtian theatre production. There is, too, a strong narrative element in his art which is so evident in the works in this show. Objects here almost become words, working as signs, symbols and metaphors with great contemplative potential.

How to avoid the liaison dangereuse between post-colonialism and post-modernism-Sebastiano Maffettone

Posted by admin On April - 23 - 2013 Comments Off on How to avoid the liaison dangereuse between post-colonialism and post-modernism-Sebastiano Maffettone


The domain in which my argument operates is the domain of international relations (IR) analyzed from the perspective of contemporary cultural politics. By cultural politics I mean a tendency to analyze political global society in terms of cultural conditions rather than merely in terms of legal and economic structures. This “culturalism” is indeed typical of the post-colonial paradigm, distinguishing it from Marxist and neo-liberal approaches to IR. Great part of this article is devoted to discuss the cultural politics of post-colonialism and the nature of its conjunction with post-modernism. This conjunction – I claim – is perverse and its consequences are culturally and politically dangerous. This is a good reason to avoid it.

To put it in a different way, one could distinguish in post-colonial thought between a first order and a second order argument. By a first order post-colonial argument, I mean here the substantive part through which the main political theoretical thesis is defended. By a second order post-colonial argument, I mean here the meta-theoretical way through which it is possible to philosophically justify the first order argument. What I am suggesting is that in many post-colonial theses the substantive part, that is the content of the first order argument, is reasonably sound. On the contrary, what does not work is the second order argument behind it, that is the meta-theoretical counterpart of the argument. To be more to the point, I believe that the post-modernist second order argument –included in many post-colonial theses- does not permit to properly support the main normative or substantive tenets. As a first consequence, it seems that the post-modernist second order argument is a too heavy burden for post-colonialism.

In the following, my argument goes like that:
(i) Post-colonial theories present narratives of discontent based on resentment toward colonial exploitation and cultural hegemony;
(ii) The substance matter of post-colonial narratives (their first order argument) is sound;
(iii) Post-colonial theories often rely on a post-modern philosophical argumentative structure (their second order argument);
(iv) The second order argument is not able to support the first order argument;
(v) In particular, the nihilist consequences of post-modernism make impossible the construction of a (post-colonial) discourse through which the discontent is transformed in basis for a reasonable political action;
(vi) The lack of such a discourse is source of despair and predispose to political fragmentation and violence;

This complex argumentation can prima facie appear too abstract to be sensible (I should probably discuss some post-colonial authors one by one to be precise). After reflection, I do not think so. On the opposite, I am really convinced that avoiding the liaison dangereuse between post-colonialism and post-modernism can help to promote a reasonable discursive path in the global setting. If a narrative, based on sound reasons, like post-colonialism, does not find a discursive path, then it will blow up in pieces with destructive consequences, both materially and spiritually. Note that I am not suggesting that post-colonial theories are responsible for this. Colonial exploitation and hegemony get the real responsibility, to do not speak of some Western blindness as inability to see the asymmetry between the theory and the practice of liberal-democracy in the global setting.

I am quite conscious of the ambition and the difficulty connected with my principal aim. The de-construction of the part of the theoretical bulk of post-colonialism in IR is not an easy task. Moreover, my argumentation is surely permeated by some utopian naiveté and several (hidden) assumptions. For example, it would be normal to criticize the assumption that a sophisticated philosophical methodology, like post-modernism, can have immediate practical consequences. Or it is not difficult to object that my presentation of post-modernism looks like a too thin silhouette, being in other words more a caricature than a fair account.

Eventually, however, my claim is not so bizarre. It is a claim in favor of more objectivity and universality in approaching cultural politics from a post-colonial point of view. Of course, here the objection from within post-colonialism is that universalism and objectivity are forms of disguised Euro-centric political culture. I am just suggesting that without universalism and objectivity even the right claims implicit in post-colonial political culture cannot be appropriately formulated and communicated. That is why what I am trying to argue is in the end neither too complex nor exceedingly controversial. For I am saying that post-colonialism should care more about universal discourse whereas Western liberals should care more about the effects of cultural side of political theory (I will omit the second part of the argument –concerning liberalism- in this paper). The conclusion of the argument is quite clear: post-colonial scholarship is committed to engage liberal universalism to invoke justice, and liberal scholarship must care of post-colonial tenets to do not give up to its basic principles in significant areas of IR.

As far the economy of this article is concerned, it is divided in three sections: section two discusses some fundamental theses of post-colonialism; section three emphasizes the post-modern arguments usually taken up by post-colonialism and stresses their most evident limits.

2. In this section, I try to sketch some basic tenets of post-colonialism as political culture. Here, I summarize what I called the first order argument for post-colonialism, that is the core of its normative and substantive theses. Roughly speaking, I think that there is not too much to object to this first order argument. In so doing, my methodology is voluntarily simplifying, and I do not pretend to be complete in listing some among the main tenets of post-colonialism. Rather, I have in mind only the general structure of a widespread social-scientific literature such as post-colonialism and the reasons for its main claims. In the following, I will specially draw my theses from an analysis of the Indian tradition, even if I think that they are potentially more general and could apply to the whole post-colonial literature. My presentation does not intend to be particularly rigorous from a historical point of view. It just aims at providing a minimal framework for the general theoretical purpose of this paper.

Post-colonialism is a political culture continuing the anti-colonial and nationalist trends widespread in the “third world” after 1945. Its configuration is complex, being a diasporic product in which indigenous and cosmopolitan elements merge (this is particularly evident in post-colonial art). Post-colonialism is basically a mixture of local culture and general political principles. All this is contaminated and spread out by the political activism of many movements, going from proper political parties to mass migration groups, from sophisticated intellectual elites to suburban activism. From this point of view, there is an inherent ambiguity in post-colonialism, being post-colonialism both a historical trend and a mode of theoretical analysis.

Among the main tenets of post-colonial political culture are the following ones:
(i) Explicit anti-colonialism
(ii) Strong Anti-Eurocentrism
(iii) Emphasis on cultural localism
(iv) Political priority of the marginal people
(v) Return to religion
(vi) Counter-history both as: reconstruction of the past from the present point of view; and anti-historicism

(i) Post-colonialism is a complex and differentiated political culture. The cement of post-colonial political culture is surely the consensus against the legacy of western colonialism. European expansion in the period 1492-1945 is condemned from a shared moral point of view. In particular, what is in the focus of post-colonialism is the cultural –rather than economic or military- dominance of the West. The political culture of colonial states coincided with an apology of western modernity, conceived both as the final destination of global civilization and the normative point from which history must be reconsidered. According to the generality of post-colonial thinkers, the trade-off between this (supposed) exportation of modernity and the costs for the colonized in terms of exploitation, humiliation and sufferance have been tragically negative.

(ii) This thesis should imply that colonialism must be ethically rejected in universalistic terms from the global (universal) justice point of view. Global (universal) justice in fact cannot approve systematic exploitation, humiliation and sufferance. This straightforward thesis is however made impossible by the strong and reasonable anti-Eurocentric background of the post-colonial paradigm. In complex ways, modernity, capitalism and universalism are associated by post-colonial political culture. Modernity implies –in this view- an original form of stability detached from metaphysics and related to the public culture of liberal-democracy (Rawls and Habermas are paradigmatic from this point of view). This shift, from metaphysics to public culture, is promoted by capitalism and affirmed by European colonialism. That is why the legacy of European modernity is so controversial from the post-colonial point of view. Ranajiit Guha presents his post-colonial thesis in opposition to the Hegelian idea of “Weltgeshichte” or world history, both denouncing the hypocrisy of this “public” reconciliation of reason and history as Euro-centric and reclaiming a logical-historical space for Indian subaltern masses. The core of modern public culture is supposed to be however universalism. Post-colonial thinkers often see universalism as the other face of Eurocentrism. That is why anti-colonialism, anti-Eurocentrism, anti-modernism and anti-universalism are –for many post-colonial thinkers- all aspects of the same unacceptable package. This stage makes difficult the relation between post-colonial and liberal political culture.

(iii) This anti-Eurocentric attitude with its implicit rejection of universalism implies a bias in favor of localism. Localism is the way in which postcolonial thought looks for hetero-spatiality, through which it tries to convert the “there” of the Eurocentric narrative in a “here” situated in the post-colonial space. The scope of this localism can be either terribly wide, like Asia, or much narrower, like the history of Bengali or even a personal narrative in opposition to the public “colonial” history (like Tagore in Guha Appendix). The common core of different forms of localism consists in denouncing the cultural hegemony (Gramsci) of the West, proposing on the other hand the richer cultural background of some local cultures (Gandhi). There are different degrees of localism, also in dependence of the center-periphery location of the specific culture discussed. Assuming that the core of Euro-centrism is Atlantic, one could distinguish for example a Mediterranean peripheral localism from an Oriental one.

(iv) Localism has a lot to do with rediscovering marginalization. One of the typical claims of post-colonial political culture consists in the emphasis on neglected populations, in an attempt to rescue their expressivity and role. Again here, the scope of this movements toward the margins can be highly differentiated. Generally speaking, one can imagine three different levels of distinction: Western culture; élite local cultures; and marginal people local culture. Whereas the moral condemnation of Western culture is ubiquitous, the emphasis on the separation between local elite and marginal people is typically post-colonial. This emphasis could imply several degrees of distinction, ranging from mere separation to explicit condemnation of the local élites (for complicity with the West). This stage permits to disconnect post-colonialism –which divides elites from marginal people- from anti-colonialist and nationalist trends –which did not. At the same time, the emphasis on marginal people makes post-colonial political culture near to traditional Marxism (more Sartre than Althusser) [2].

(v) Systematic recovering religion puts however post-colonial political culture at odds with Marxism (with some possible exceptions like Liberation Theology). What is really extraneous to post-colonial political culture is Marxist economicism (Note however that there are also religious interpretations of Marxisms). From this point of view, post-colonialism is much more spiritually oriented than Western culture including Marxism. In this perspective, Marxism and liberalism are both targets of post-colonialism in the measure in which they over-emphasize rationality in the motivational set of the individual and in the reconstruction of history. Religions can be rediscovered –within a post-colonial horizon- in different ways, ranging from the most spiritual and apolitical to the more politicized (like often in the Islamic world). Almost superfluous to say, it is quite impossible to disentangle the religious revival form the localist trend and the traditionalist sympathies of post-colonialism.

(vi) Religious revival, localism but more than anything else revaluation of marginal people are at the origin of post-colonial counter-history. With counter-history, post-colonialism looks for hetero-temporality, aiming to transform the “not yet” stage in which Western narratives locate the Rest in a “now”. Counter-history can be presented in at least two different ways: (vi a) as exploiting unusual reconstructive paths in the re-interpretation of the past. With the time the marginalized colonial subject begins to be separated from the bourgeois nationalists, being post-colonial story told from the perspective of the first rather than of the second. This trend implies a re-politicization of subaltern masses seen as the real victim of exploitation and hegemony. Indian historians, within this trend, try to locate the revolutionary agency and the force of change in the hands of “subalterns”[3]. In such a way the theory of culture intersects the theory of change. The attempt is of course to make this new subaltern point of view hegemonic in an original way[4]. Cognitive failure is consequently denounced when the counter-historical interpretation is confronted with traditional historiography. Finally, the narrative of the subaltern alienated consciousness is written to substitute the élite reconstruction of the past. (vi b) Post-colonial thought often presents itself as frankly “anti-historicist”[5]. Here, the counter-history point lies in a critique of the historicist argument according to which the history of the East is a primitive phase of world history (which culminated in the Western epiphany). This thesis is typically Hegelian-marxist but can be also liberal[6]. The recommendation for the colonized here is to wait. From which one can drive a vision of history based on the ”not yet” (not modern enough), to which the nationalist colonized opposes his-her “now” (idem 9). The opposition here is with the idea that the colonial world is someway pre-political[7].

3. In this Section, I recapitulate some elements taken from what I called the second order argument for post-colonialism, that is its meta-theoretical apparatus based on post-modernist thought. As I anticipated, on this point my view is critical. Of course, it would be preposterous if not absurd to present post-modernism in few lines (pages). This is the reason why here I just try to sketch some guidelines of a sub-set of postmodernist visions to see how it influences the post-colonial movement. By post-modernism here I mean a philosophical climate characterized by the rejection of western modern philosophy from Descartes to Kant with their contemporary descendants like analytical philosophy with all its political consequences. This philosophical climate includes a skeptical attitude toward modern epistemology and metaphysics and their claim to knowledge. In some way, this trend is antique, taking its origin from the “Young Hegelian” disempowering of philosophy and from Nietzsche[8]. Philosophical post-modernism presents itself in conjunction with similar cultural patterns in esthetics and political theory. In political theory, which concerns us more, post-modernism is usually associated with the condemnation of great meta-narratives (Lyotard and Jameson up to Rorty) from Marx to Rawls.

On the one hand, to the rationalist outlook that characterizes philosophical methodology in the Descartes-Kant tradition, post-modern thinkers generally oppose the contingency and the conventionality of the “normative”. Against the rigor of logical argument, post-moderns make a plea for the force of rhetoric and the metaphorical significance implicit in the artistic works. In such way, they contrast modernist universalism in name of the absolute specificity of particular life-worlds and forms of knowledge, main consequence of this contrast being taken up as a rejection of philosophical foundationalism. In opposition to foundationalism, post-modern authors privilege heterogeneity, fragmentation, particularity, contingency, localism.

On the other hand, post-modernism presents itself as a dramatic revision of modern subjectivity, around which the Descartes-Kant view was centered. Against the universalistic, noumenal and mentalist self, post-moderns invoke an embodied subject whose partition is revealed by the relevance of the (Freudian) unconscious[9]. Against the rational subject of modernity, post-moderns launch their claim for the economy of desire and the power of the irrational. Against the unencumbered individual of the Kantian legacy, post-moderns emphasize the social character of the person. The negative discourse about the subject, inaugurated by Levi-Strauss, becomes -especially in Foucault and Derrida- the starting point for a radical critique of modernity.

I rely here on that particular segment of the post-modernist trend that is often called “French Theory”, which can be taken as an American popularization of some post-structuralist French argumentative patterns and styles of thought. Following the interpretation of Heidegger and Nietzsche, already since the period between the two world wars of the twentieth century, some French intellectuals began to nourish anti-Western sentiments in matters concerning metaphysics and politics. In this unusual way, they often became anti-colonial before the time of post-modernism. Francois Fanon and Jean Paul Sartre represent, in different moods, this anti-colonial attitude, and can be considered among the forerunners of the Western influence on post-colonialism. For several reasons, however, they cannot be properly ranked among the authors of the French Thought such as Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Lacan, Bourdieu, Baudrillard. My thesis is that this post-modern (French Thought) background – notwithstanding its oppositionist contribution to the Western discourse of the Enlightment – makes impossible potentially objective and universal rights claims of post-colonialism, usually directed to rescue the worst-offs from exploitation and hegemony.

French Thought intersects post-colonialism in different ways, among which radical constructivism in IR and social sciences, literary criticism, legal hermeneutics, women studies, psychology. Here I will mention just two post-modern options influencing post-colonial political-theoretical literature: (i) the Foucauldian option; (ii) the deconstructionist option.

The work of Foucault constitutes a basic inspiration for post-colonial studies not only in India (see Chatterjee). Authors like Edward Said[10] and Valentin Mudimbe[11] (L’invenzione dell’Africa) strictly rely on Foucault, when they formulate their central tenet connecting colonial power with science and knowledge.

Foucault work is silent about colonialism[12]. From this point of view, his work remains strictly euro-centric. His main theses however present a significant and radical criticism of Western theoretical tradition. That is why, some of his theoretical tools can be used and have been used for the sake of post-colonial arguments. In particular, I have in mind three of these patterns:

(i) The idea of bio-political power;
(ii) The relation between truth and power;
(iii) The local character of the critical point of view.

(i) the idea of biopolitics, and of a biopolitical power, comes from the last part of Foucault career. It someway derives from the Nietzschean origin of his thought and from the post-modern emphasis on the economy of desire (Deleuze-Guattari). In spate of the traditional Lebensphilosophie (Dilthey), Foucault sees power as the real transcendental space from which a historical approach is supposed to begin. The significance of biopolitics is linked to the disciplinatory power of the state and the totalitarian institutions (prisons, mental illness clinics, etc.). Progressively, for Foucault, politics moves from the manipulation of life and death to the caring of bodies. The biopolitical stance reveals the centrality of the body and the complexity of the self in its relationships with the social practices. The centrality of the body is invoked by many post-colonial authors as an instrument against the rationalistic and scientific dominance of the West.

(ii) The emphasis on the relationship between truth and power is formulated by (the younger) Foucault in his Archeology of the Power, and basically re-presented by Said[13]. It depends on conceiving any discourse with truth claims as part of dominium. In this sense, truth and power are not two different things. On the contrary, truth claims are part of the legitimatory apparatus power physiologically needs to be stable. This intersection does not operate at the conscious level of the researcher, rather it represents a hidden premise of any inquiry aiming at truth. Power, in this view, does not work in an uniform way, but rather through a series of micro practices. Into the concept of practice, Foucault sees the moment of coercion. All the forms of social control are included in the range of practices, going from police measures to legal devices, from pedagogical disciplines to clinical instructions. The unmasking of these forms of social control as potential forms of exclusion (as in the case of clinics) should make evident the intrinsic relation between discourse and power. Foucault’s central argument, from this point of view, goes from (pure) knowledge to the savoirs, from the savoirs to the discursive practices and finally from the discursive practices to truth seeking norms. From this perspective, power is never fully pervasive, to avoid a performative contradiction that would completely close the logical space of any possible critique.

(iii) The local character of the critical point of view takes seriously radical historicity. What is the deconstruction of metaphysics for Heidegger and Derrida is the deconstruction of historicity for Foucault. It has a double meaning, the one being cultural the other political. In the first meaning, it presents an invitation to doubt of totalizing paradigms and in general of any form of structural coherence. For Foucault, only limited and marginal forms of knowledge are seriously revelatory. In the second meaning, there is a claim for the point of view of subalternity, of the unspoken and of the repressed. Within the complex Foucauldian genealogy, the fusion of local memories (le savoir des gens) and of rare and erudite forms of knowledge are one face of the moon, the other being the rescue of the “underdogs” and the forgotten. In such a way, this radical historicist point of view challenges liberal pluralism in name of the emancipation from marginalization. Against the epistemic objectivism, taken as the background of western thought and political liberalism, Foucault defends an anti-scientific and particularistic vision strongly oriented toward emancipation.

(ii) Derrida[14] was an internal-external (suburban Algerian, philosophically French from Paris) radical critic of western metaphysics, following the tracks of Heidegger. Conceiving himself like a “marrano” , he saw someway himself as a subaltern subject. His work can be put under the label “post-structuralism” (Saussure and Levi-Strauss are a necessary readings to understand his philosophy). In structuralism he always saw a powerful form of western ethnocentrism. Against this background, he forced out “deconstructionism”, which is a philosophy and a strategy, whose main aim is to shake the whole basis of western thought. Deconstruction is directed to fight the ontological violence that sustains western metaphysics and is revealed in structure of the language. Its effects concern history, politics, ethics and language. His main contributions to post-colonialism:

(i) Margins (Margins of Philosophy, 1972). This concept, coming from the core of the critique of metaphysics, meets the need to redefine subaltern positions, that is typical of post-colonial enterprise (Spivak, Chatterjee). The post-colonial subject is obliged to inhabit the cultural space of the colonizer, and the deconstruction offers an alternative logical niche from which to create a derivative discourse (Chatterjee). In this sense, Derrida radicalizes the work of Levi-Strauss, whose first merit was to dispute the cultural difference between civilized and primitive. Related concepts, developed by Derrida, are diaspora and difference (note the distinction in French between “difference-differance”) are naturally expandable from the original meta-theoretical intention to be reformulate in the light of the experience of subaltern groups.

(ii) Otherness. The centrality of the other –following Levinas – is an essential element of Derrida philosophy. The deconstruction of Western metaphysics and the idea itself of “differance” presuppose the linguistically other (here the derivation is from Lacan). In such a way, Derrida deconstructionism becomes an element of radical multi-culturalism. This fact explains why his international success is some way linked to the expectations of American multi-cultural community[15]. Post-colonial thinkers adopted Derrida idea of otherness to formulate basic concepts such as hybridism, métissage and creolization, used to give an account of the inextricable next which is the basis of every culture[16]. It is also possible to use this Derridian idea to distinguish western subalterns from third world subalterns, comparatively defending the second ones.[17]

Even admitting that my account of post-modern contributions to post-colonialism is cursory and exceedingly simplificatory, I think one can derive from it some weaknesses of the combined paradigm (the liaison dangereuse). Characteristics of this weakness are:

(i) Lack of objectivism. It is a standard critical stance toward post-modernism. Post-modernism strongly relies on a sort of normative criticism of normativity. Major institutions, starting with capitalism and state, are considered able to impose their own patterns through a series of practices in a falsely neutralized way. This kind of pattern is present both in Foucault and Derrida. It is, however, difficult to find in their theses any argument for such a critical point of view. Someway, the post-modern radical normativity represents a contradictio in adjecto. To be clear: it seems that the archimedean perspective that such a radical criticism of objectivity (the post-modern one) presupposes a privileged point of view. In other words, it needs more and not less objectivity. Which by definition is impossible within the post-modernist framework.

(ii) Lack of objectivism is connected with anti-scientism and anti-rationalism. It has been noted that the relativistic stance, implicit in the post-modern trend, implies a kind of epistemic populism[18]. Hegel wrote in is Phenomenology of permanent “struggle between Enlightenment and superstition”. The Hegelian account is supposed to be apologetic toward the West. We must admit, however, that too often, within the legacy of post-modernism, post-colonial thinkers have been on the side of “superstition”. Often, It would have been more sensible and simple to state that colonial power was deeply unjust and irrational. Even sophisticated intellectuals like Nandy, Guham, Spivak, Cattherjee and Bhabba run the risk of considering antique Indian astrology and the classic religious texts (like Veda) on a par with modern science[19]. This attitude, shared in different contexts by Islamic fundamentalists and –outside the realm of post-colonialism- by the inglorious “soviet biology” of the past, puts at risk not only western modernity but any possible vision of modernity. It can be also seen as a premise for a false progressivism and a substantial traditionalism. From this point of view, false progressivism and real conservatism –connected with anti-scientism- could be accused even of favoring the caste system.

(iii) Anti-objectivism and anti-scientism imply the impossibility of universalism. For post-modernism universalism can be considered as a kind of false consciousness. For post-colonialism, it is strictly linked with that entelechia of reason which is considered essential to the Eurocentric narrative. The impossibility of universalism has two pernicious consequences. On the one hand, post-modernist anti-universalisms rely on a perverse trust in spontaneity and naiveté[20] (Spivak). Contrary to the Marxist legacy, in which the hegemonic claim of the oppressed is defended through an universalistic apparatus of revolt, here the voice of the subaltern is supposed to be immediately able to rescue by itself a history of domination. It is highly controversial however that the localism of community and religion can support a radical revolutionary claim like the post-colonial one. On the other hand, and for the same reasons, the post-modern attitude of post-colonialists localizes the conflict so to say “depoliticizing” it. In such a way, it deprives the political stances of the subalterns of vision, condemning them either to be confined within the esthetic realm[21] or to be confronted with in a series of particularistic negotiations (Zizek). This condemnation is connected with the impossibility – from a post-modern point of view – of raising the bar up to the level of universality, whose preclusion makes impossible to reclaim the humanistic (in the kantian sense) basis of the post-colonial claim against exploitation and hegemony. In such a way, post-modern anti-universalism precludes the appeal to dignity and human rights with all the emancipatory options these notions provide. Otherness, within a post-modern outlook, is always confined in the singularity of an experience (African, Indian, Islamic, even a village, etc.) or even to the privatization of the emotions against the public history, and never offered to the possibility of an emancipatory Aufhebung through the universal mediation of reason.

(iv) Anti-modernism. The post-colonial thought is often ambiguous about its relation with political modernity. It is often characterized by the coexistence of two logics. One logic derives from the experience of subalternity and protest, and is clearly anti-historicist and anti-modernist in the sense previously defined. A second logic derives from the liberal constitutional legacy and the universalist philosophy of European origin. I think that both these logics are necessary parts of the post-colonial argument and that post-modernism makes impossible to rely on the second logic.


To conclude, it seems of general interest to save a post-colonial political thought that can embrace the pursuit of reason in name of social justice. To do this, post-colonial political thought has to put on the table the questions of hetero-spatiality and hetero-temporality associating them with notions such as reason and justice. It has to abandon the view of the (original) ethnographer and the historicist, to sensibly transform the “there” in “here” and the “not yet” in “now”[22]. But this aim seems better served by the admission of a path-independence of universalism, modernity and objectivity rather than by their post-modernist nullification. In other words, from a post-colonial point of view modern pluralism –there are many relevant “now” and “here”- works better than nihilism.

The final/definitive version of Sebastiano Maffettone’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol. 37 number 4 May 2011, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 493-504, Special Issue: “Realigning Liberalism: Pluralism, Integration, Identities”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2010, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue http://psc.sagepub.com/content/37/4.toc


[1]I particularly thank Giovanna Borradori, Akeel Bilgrami, Aakash Singh, Domenico Melidoro, Valentina Gentile and Will Kymlicka for discussing this paper at length. The Reset-Dialogues Istanbul Seminars 2010 – taking place at Istanbul Bilgi University from May 19-24, 2010 – were an optimal conceptual and emotional space to present the paper: Giancarlo Bosetti, Seila Benhabib, David Rasmussen, Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul made there very useful comments and I thank them for improving the arguments (albeit probably less than they would have liked…).

[2] See C.Nelson and G.Gorssberg (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretations of Cultures, Universiyt of Illinois Press 1988

[3]See Ranajit Guha & Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (eds.), Selected Subaltern Studies, Oxford University Press 1988

[4]Idem.’See also of Guha, Dominance without Egemony: History and Power in Colonial India, Harvard University Press 1997

[5]See Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe (Postcolonail Thought and Historical Difference) , Princeton University Press 2000

[6]Idem p.8

[7]see Guha critique of Hosbawm in Elementary Aspects of Peasants Insurgency in Colonial India, Oxford University Press, Dehli 1983.

[8]See Karl Loewith, From Hegel to Nietzsche, Columbia University Press 1964

[9]see the excursus on Odysseus in Max Horkheimer & Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of the Enlightment, Stanford University Press 2002

[10]See his Orientalism: Western Representation of the Orient, Penguin 1985. See also E.Said ‘Foucault and the Imagination of Power’, in David Couzen Hoy (ed.) Foucault Critical Reader, Blackwell 1986

[11]See his The Invetion of Africa, J,Currey Ltd and Indiana University Press 1988

[12]I base my discussion of Michel Foucault on his L’archeologie du Savoir, Gallimard 1969

[13]Op. cit.

[14]I base my reading od Jacques Derrida on his L’ecriture et al difference, Seuil PUF 1967

[15]See Jean-Loup.Amselle, Occident decroche, Editions Stock 2008

[16]European culture included, see Salah Hassan and Iftikhar Dadi (eds) Unpacking Europe, Museum Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

[17]See G.C. Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Harvard University Press 1999

[18]See M.Nanda, Prophets Facing Backward, Rutgers University Press 2003

[19]On contemporary Indian political philosophy see Aakash Singh and Silika Mohapatra (eds.), Indian Political Thought, Routledge 2010

[20]A Crique…cit

[21]See the classic Juergen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, MIT Press 1987

[22]Here I draw from Chakraberty, op cit Epilogue

Chávez’s Leninism -Chris Gilbert

Posted by admin On April - 19 - 2013 Comments Off on Chávez’s Leninism -Chris Gilbert


In the many homages to Hugo Chávez in recent weeks, there is an important element that suffers almost complete neglect.  For want of a better term we could call it “Leninism.”  By this, of course, I do not mean the tired, formulaic (and basically anti-Leninist) doctrine that generally bears that name.  It is precisely the hegemony of that surrogate doctrine, in addition to the intractability of the real one, that drives the neglect and is also behind the mostly conscious attempts to separate Chávez from what passes for Leninism.

Think of it: “The revolution against Capital”!  That is how Gramsci understood Lenin’s work; this was Gramsci’s shorthand way of indicating how Lenin and company threw off the evolutionist, progressive consensus of their moment which included the Second International (hence the reference to Capital) and the bourgeois intelligentsia.1  This was the “end of history” doctrine of the epoch.  Fast-forwarding a century, perhaps we can say that the single most important thing that Chávez and the Venezuelan people did from the 1990s onward was to throw off — in a revolutionary, Leninist way, if you will — the “end of history” consensus of our moment, which had infected both left and right.

The parallels with Fidel Castro and the 26 de Julio movement are also evident.  By the mid to late 1950s most of the revolutionary fires seemed to be extinguished in the Caribbean region.  With Jacobo Árbenz taken down and the liberal guerrilla in Colombia generally brought to bay, U.S. functionaries felt confident they had control over the area, their “backyard”; this situation was complemented by a great deal of confusion and defeatism in the ranks of the left.  Then, seeming to come out of nowhere, the rapid advance of the 26 de Julio movement, which culminated in the toppling of Batista and the taking of La Habana in 1959, gave the lie to imperialism’s confidence; yet it also gave the lie to the Soviet version of the end of history, the tendency toward pacific coexistence with the U.S.

Defying not only Fukuyama but also Zapatista teachings in the air at the time, Chávez — like Lenin and Fidel — led a movement that took state power, and like them he was saddled with a million problems for doing so.  Georg Lukács, in the best homage to Lenin that I know of, refers to his commentary on Napoleon’s saying “On s’engage et puis. . . on voit”; the Bolsheviks engaged in serious battle in October 1917, and then compromised on “such details as the Brest Peace, the New Economic Policy.”2  With this reference, Lukács means to identify and characterize the hundreds of pacts, compromises, and concessions that Lenin was forced to make because of the Bolsheviks’ taking of power: that is, precisely because of their doing the revolution in what can never be perfect circumstances.  He differentiates this kind of pact from opportunistic ones that are made with the aim — though purportedly in the name of purity or what have you — of not doing the revolution.

Both before and after taking power, Hugo Chávez made many, many pacts and accords with figures such as Lukashenko, Ahmadinejad, Santos, Miquilena, and (it is commonly believed) even Gustavo Cisneros.  The list goes on and includes the most varied powers and people.  Since those included range from anti-imperialists such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the neoliberal businessman Gustavo Cisneros and the tractable social democrat Luis Miquilena, the inevitable question arises over tactics and strategy.  What is the strategic line that runs through this most varied gamut of alliances?  A similar question can be asked about the many projects that were born and disappeared like night flowers: the Five Motors, the Three Rs, Battalions (of the PSUV), Aló Presidente Teórico . . . the list goes on.

Much of this appears to be mere fishtailing, and there can be no doubt that in his surprising trajectory Chávez made serious errors — errors which could turn out one day to be fatal to the process in Venezuela, since unfortunately no revolutionary process is irreversible.  Perhaps the best explanation of this complex trajectory appears when we look at Chávez’s process of political formation.  As a young military officer, Chávez had links to the Revolutionary Party of Venezuela (PRV by its Spanish acronym, in which his brother was a militant) and other left movements.  In prison after 1992, but even before it, Chávez read his way through many Marxist texts, including the most difficult ones.  Some of these books came from a collection he bought from a former schoolteacher of his, a communist.

Then, on leaving prison, Chávez entered political life and to a certain extent put his Marxism behind him.  To use a spatial metaphor we can say he began scouting the territory for himself or even groping his way around in the dark.  We should not forget that in 1998 he was still talking about the Third Way of Anthony Giddens, the now forgotten intellectual fad of the moment!  What is most important is that, as the years went by and in response to blows from imperialism and some of his own defeats, Chávez found himself reconnecting with Marxism via his practice and via the activities of the mass movement.

One such moment is when, faced with the plurality of movements in the World Social Forum of 2005 in Porto Alegre, Chávez thought of what could possibly unify all of them in their diversity and declared it to be “socialism.”  Another is when, after trying to construct socialism from above with the constitutional reform of 2007, he took a step back and began to think about constructing it on the street level, working with the communes, thereby recovering the Marxist idea of the auto-emancipation of the working class.

Coming back to Lenin, we can observe that he also took steps back and had his moment of putting Marxism (or rather “Marxism”) behind him.  Slavoj Zizek’s Repeating Lenin very excellently depicts the crisis Lenin entered into just before and during the First World War: a catastrophe that effectively included the disappearance of his movement.3  Lenin then re-encountered or reread Marxism though studying Hegel and through the revolutionary process that opened up in Russia in February 1917, which caught him by surprise.  This new Lenin was Lenin at his most agile, most “dialectic”; now come events like those of the Finland Station as well as texts like The State and Revolution and the April Theses that continue to astound.

C.L.R. James, when in midlife and confronting the postwar taming of the left in his time, tried to unlock the secret of this Lenin, the most authentic Lenin.  With the help of Raya Dunayevskaya, James went directly to the Russian text of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks.  There he was deeply struck by Lenin’s marginal note to Hegel’s Doctrine of Being: “LEAP, LEAP, LEAP!”  Lenin penned in a large script alongside Hegel’s paragraphs, in an attempt to summarize how the new comes into existence.4  It is this capacity to leap, to overcome the existing order of things — call it the neoliberal consensus, the end of history, economicism, or even pacific coexistence — that is the most important legacy of Lenin and the one that best characterizes Hugo Chávez.

Marxism, like any theory, is susceptible to the processes of fetishism that within capitalism tend to lead to a closed-off view of history.  Its mainstream is apt to pact silently with the fatalism that informs intellectual production beneath capitalism.  This can be seen in how perhaps the most brilliant Marxist theorist of the second half of the 20th century, Louis Althusser, tended to allow his discoveries regarding structures and combination in capitalism to slide into accepting the inescapability of those very structures.  “Leninism,” then, would be the name for that moment of rupture with capital, and with its theories, and even with the theories critical of capitalism to the degree that they make peace with fatalism.

This is the Leninism of Chávez.  It is a firm no to all fatalism, and a commitment to struggle and even muddle one’s way through what appear to be endgame scenarios, with the aim of advancing toward a more just and better society.  Marxism, of course, is not a Utopian doctrine in the sense that it does not propose that there is some perfect society and then speculate (impossibly) about how to get there.  But it is Utopian in the sense that it teaches that a radically different modernity is not only possible but to some degree latent in the development of the current, capitalist one.  Not only that: Marxism says that human beings are not creatures of the hive, but can work towards that alternative modernity’s realization.


In his impressive Golpe de timón speech of five months ago, which constitutes Chávez’s last serious political testament, he recognizes that, the political revolution having been done, the economic changes relevant to the construction of socialism are still unrealized.  Then he adds, “I am not saying this so that we feel overwhelmed or daunted; on the contrary, to gather new forces before the complexity of the challenge.”  I think that in these words — and really throughout the entire remarkable discourse — one perceives an attitude very akin to Lenin’s dogged resistance to reconcile with “what there is.”  We could say that this resistance, combined with a perennial disposition to struggle inventively, is the best legacy of Lenin and of Leninists like Chávez — if it were not also a kind of anti-legacy insofar as it refuses to let one live cozily or complacently with it.



1  Antonio Gramsci, “La revolución contra ‘El Capital'” in Antonio Gramsci: Antología (Siglo XXI, 1970): 34-7.

2  Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study of the Unity of His Thought (1924).

3  Slavoj Zizek, Repeating Lenin (Lacan.com, 1997).

4  C.L.R. James, Notes on Dialectics (Allison & Busby, 1980).


This article owes a great deal to conversations with my friend Gabriel Gil, who has insisted on Chávez’s Leninism and helped me to understand many elements of Chávez’s development and practice as a revolutionary.
Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.


Posted by admin On April - 10 - 2013 Comments Off on test





The Alafis in Sindh- Salman Rashid

Posted by admin On February - 9 - 2013 Comments Off on The Alafis in Sindh- Salman Rashid


The writer is author of Jhelum: City of the Vitasta (Sang-e-Meel, 2005) salman.rashid@tribune.com.pk
The Alafi tribe of western Hejaz were among the earlier converts to Islam. Since before 680 CE, a large body of them frequently travelled back and forth between their country and Makran. Now, Makran at that time seems to have been very much like modern day Fata. Though part of the kingdom of Sindh under Raja Chach, it appears to have been only loosely held with a substantial foreign element running wild in the country.

In 684, when Abdul Malik bin Marwan took over as caliph, his deputy in Iraq, Hujaj bin Yusuf, appointed one Saeed of the family Kilabi to Makran. The man was entrusted with collecting money from this country as well as neighbouring regions wherever he could exercise pressure.

Somewhere in Kirman on his way east, Saeed met with one Safahwi Hamami. The Chachnama is not explicit about this man, but gives the understanding that while he had “no army under (him)”, he was nevertheless a man of significant social standing. The man may, therefore, have been a merchant.

Armed as he was with caliphal fiat, Saeed ordered Safahwi to join him in his raids. Upon the latter’s refusal, an altercation ensued in which Safahwi rebuked Saeed: “I will not obey your command; I consider it below my dignity to do so.”

An incensed Saeed killed the man. Then he had the body skinned and beheaded, sending the two trophies to Hujaj in Iraq. We hear echoes of this activity today in Fata where beheadings are commonly exercised by foreign ‘guests’. Thereafter, arriving in Makran, Saeed established himself and began his plundering raids.

One day on his travels, he was perchance met by a party of Alafis. Now, these people, distantly related to the Hamamis, harboured a grudge against Saeed for killing their kinsman. What began as a squabble quickly degenerated into a full-blooded melee in which Saeed was killed and his cortege repulsed to Iraq.

Hujaj was infuriated at the loss of a trusted lieutenant. More so, when his party, fearful of punishment, expressed ignorance about Saeed’s fate. Hujaj, well-known for his ruthless cruelty and predilection for torture and murder to elicit information, beheaded a few of the men, upon which the remainder told him of the clash with the Alafis. In retaliation, the governor executed one Suleman Alafi, a local resident who had nothing to do with the affair other than belonging to the same clan as Saeed’s killers.

Hujaj now passed a decree to persecute the Alafis. When he appointed Mohammad bin Haroon as overseer of Makran, he expressly instructed him: “Find out the Alafis, and try your best to secure them, and exact the vengeance due to Saeed from them.” This was the year 704.

With Arab hold consolidated on Makran, the Alafis fled east to Sindh, where their leader Mohammad bin Haris became a close and trusted confidante of Raja Dahar’s. Seven years later, in 711, when the Arabs finally came calling to stay for good, this man became the king’s advisor on all matters concerning the invading army.

So great was the trust reposed in the Alafi that when Dahar placed the man under his son Jaisiah’s command, he instructed the prince to follow every advice forthcoming from the Arab “whether it be (for) an advance, or a retreat”. Living up to this trust, the Alafis gave a fairly good account of themselves in the final battle for Alor (east of Rohri). However, one of their number betrayed the castle in the end: as Jaisiah abandoned the fight and stole away from the fortified city, an unnamed Alafi tied a note to an arrow saying the castle was undefended and shot it into Arab lines.

The Alafi leader with a large number of followers, however, had already fled to Kashmir where he petitioned the ruler for asylum. This seems to have been granted because we read from the Chachnama that the Alafi built many mosques in Kashmir and that he was highly respected in the court.

Now, between 684 when the Alafis murdered Saeed Kilabi and 704 when they fled Makran for Sindh, they would surely have known they were marked. And so, they built themselves a safe haven secreted away in the dusty brown gorges of the Kech Bund.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 9th, 2013.

Monasteries in ancient Sindh — Kaleem Butt

Posted by admin On January - 22 - 2013 Comments Off on Monasteries in ancient Sindh — Kaleem Butt


Sindhi is one of the oldest and major languages of South Asia, inheriting a rich culture, folklore, and a vast literature

This article deals with the ancient monasteries and temples that were the educational hub of those times. It also sheds light on the state of education in Sindh before the Arab invasion. As we know, the only historical record found about Sindh is after the Arab invasion. Very little is written about the pre-Arab Sindh and I have tried to shed some light on that period of history. Details of temples and monasteries found in Sindh are mentioned, as it is known that religion has remained the centre of education in every age.

In every age, we find the influence of religion on education; priests and clergymen were considered to be the most learned people in ancient times. We find such examples in the Egyptian Civilisation, ancient Iraq, Persia, and others. Even in Semitic religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam, priests were taken as the most learned men, while churches and mosques were referred to as centres of education. The priests had enormous influence over the common people.

The same is the case with the ancient civilisation of Sindh. Sindhi is one of the oldest and major languages of South Asia, inheriting a rich culture, folklore, and a vast literature. Its literature can stand equal to any developed language of the world. According to some recent research, Sindhi is related to the Dravidian language and its ancestry dates back to the civilisation of Mohenjodaro (Allana, 2000). Dr Allana quoting Jahiz (864 A.D) writes that the people of Sindh are well advanced in Mathematics and Astrology. They have their own script for their language. While quoting Ibne-Nadim (955 A.D), Dr Allana writes that the people of Sindh spoke various languages and believed in different religions. They wrote their language in about 200 scripts. Out of them, nine were very common.

It seems probable that Sindh for a considerable time remained under the rule of barbarians from the west who had first overrun it, and that the Vedic Aryans, when at length they came in contact with the country, were unable to exercise influence comparable to that which they established over the rest of northern India. Traditions relating to Sindh are recorded in Sanskrit, Persian and Pali literature and afford a few glimpses of the political state of the country prior to the first definite date in its history (Lambrick, 1973).

Lambrick (1973) writes that the Mahabharata speaks of the kingdom of Sindh as a cultured and civilised land. He adds that the preserved stupas in Sindh indicate that they belonged to the Mahayana school of Buddhism. He also mentions the Buddhist monasteries in Thul Mir Rukan of Sakrand, and a stupa at Mirpur Khas — where the largest image of Buddha was found — which was gifted to Sri Lanka by Ayub Khan. The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang travelled through Sindh in 642 AD; there were 10,000 Buddhist monks living in this country in several hundred monasteries. Although these religious centres may not have been vast complexes such as the universities of Nalanda and Vikramasila in Bihar, surely it is astonishing to say that in all we have roughly 15 sites in upper and lower Sindh about which it can be said with reasonable certainty that they were once Buddhist monasteries (Lohuizen, 1981).

Monasteries are also found in Badah, Thul Mir Rukan, Mari Sabar, Depar Ghangro, Brahmanabad, Mirpur Khas, Sudheranjo-Daro, Kafirkot, Banbhore, Thatta, Budhjo-Thakar and Naukot. All these were educational institutions teaching and preaching the teachings of Buddha.

Lohuizen (1981) writes that the votive tablets discovered at Mirpur Khas can be compared to similar objects from many Buddhist sites in India. Similar tablets have been found at other Buddhist sites in Sindh such as Sudheranjodaro. The more recent discoveries from such sites are from Korian to the west of Talhar in Tando Mohammad Khan, district Badin, and are kept at the Provincial Museum of Sindh at Hyderabad. Then there is the discovery at Brahmanabad of many fragments of Hindu stone images, one of which was the frame that surrounded an image, most elaborately carved with rings of little gods around the top and down the sides. In pre-Muslim layers a building was exposed, which obviously was a Shiva shrine, judging by the discovery of two lingas, one of which was still standing on its yoni. Tsang (642 AD) claims that there were about 30 major Hindu temples in Sindh, where people were educated about religion, culture and civilisation. According to Jafarey (1981), the Sindhis appear in the Rig-Veda to have settled well in the Indus Valley and to have completely Aryanised the region.

It is a well-known fact that Sindh has been invaded repeatedly by various tribes and nations. Every invader comes with the same mindset; first, he destroys the ongoing philosophy and then imposes what he believes in simply to enslave the natives. He destroys old structures and literature, while introducing new things as per his thinking. As The Times of April 6, 1843 writes quoting the words of Charles Napier: “The natives were so pleased and welcomed the British troops, and were also pleased on removal of their own tyrant rulers.”

Here is the list of different invasions of Sindh throughout the ages: Barbaric Aryans, who had no sense or respect for city life, invaded and destroyed the cities of Sindh in 3000 BC. In 520-515 BC, the Iranians invaded Sindh. Alexander in 326-325 BC. The Syrians in 305 BC. Greeks in 195 BC. The Hellenist King of Kabul in 155 BC. Sethians and Kushans in 120 BC-200 AD. The Turks in 50 AD-200 AD. The Ephthalites or the White Huns in 400-500 AD. Sassanids from Persia in the second half of the third century AD. The Arabs entered Sindh in 712 AD. Mohammad bin Qasim destroyed the great Shiva Temple in Debal (Lohuizen, 1981). The Arghuns in the 1500s AD. Turkhans in mid-16th century AD. Mughals in late 16th century AD.

In 1839, the Talpurs ruling Sindh signed treaties with the East India Company and handed over Karachi. Finally, on February 17, 1843, the British started ruling Sindh when Charles Napier conquered it, and the Englishmen ruled until 1947.

It is certain that a country that is invaded so many times loses its institutions, education, culture and civilisation, and it takes a long time to rebuild these things.

The writer can be reached at kaleem_buttbutt@yahoo.com


Revolution and Imperialism in Syria-Fred Leplat

Posted by admin On January - 15 - 2013 Comments Off on Revolution and Imperialism in Syria-Fred Leplat


Fred Leplat argues that socialists cannot be neutral or ambivalent about Bashar al-Assad’s bloody dictatorship.

 A recent Guardian article “Russian military presence in Syria” (23 December 2012) undermines Seamus Milne’s analysis in his “Intervention in Syria” (Comment – 19 December 2012) in which he only looks at intervention by the US, Britain and France in support of the opposition Syrian National Coalition. He argues that “the only way out of an increasingly grim conflict is a negotiated settlement, with regional and international backing”, a process which would allow the Assad regime to stay in place. He is not the only one on the left in Britain to approach this tragedy in such a manner. Lindsey German, convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, concludes in a recent statement “anyone who cares about human rights in the region should see their main aim as stopping western imperialism on its march again”, but is silent as to whether Bashar al-Assad should go.

It is no surprise that the USA, Britain and France want to ensure that the outcome of this tragedy is the establishment of a new regime which suits their interests. But this is also the case of Russia and Iran who are supporting Bashar al-Assad. The two-year long civil war started as a peaceful popular uprising against the brutal dictatorship of the Assad regime, but the opposition has been forced to take up arms to defend itself.

Socialists should be in solidarity with the movement for democracy against Bashar al-Assad,  demand the ending of all foreign intervention, not just that of western countries, as well as the departure of the Assad regime, so as to allow the people of Syria to freely and independently determine their own future.

As the second anniversary approaches of the uprising against the Assad regime in Syria, so do the warnings against western military intervention in support of the opposition. With neither side able to inflict a significant blow against the other, the prospect is that of a continuation of the tragedy of a civil war.

The movement which started as a peaceful protest for democracy against the Assad dictatorship, has now escalated into a militarised civil war as the regime refuses to make any concessions and escalates the repression. It all started in the town of Daraa on the 6 March 2011 when young boys were arrested and tortured for writing the slogan “the people want to overthrow the regime” on walls across the city. Shortly after this outrage, demonstrations were held in cities across Syria, demanding the release of political prisoners, the abolition of Syria’s 48-year emergency law, more freedoms, and an end to pervasive government corruption. These were severely repressed by the Syrian army who shot at and killed the unarmed protesters.

The assault over the last two years by Syrian military forces on demonstrators and towns that support the opposition have left at least 50,000 dead and made 500,000 into refugees. Reports abound of human rights violations and war crimes on both sides. But with its superior equipment and organisation, and its long history of repression, the vast majority have been committed by the Syrian army, security forces and their allied militias.  Since the 1970 when the then defence minister Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, came to power in  coup, repression and torture of opponents has been a feature of the regime. The most notorious incident being in 1982 when tens of thousands were killed in the city of Hama by the army in order to quell an “Islamist” uprising.

The uprising for democracy in Syria is part of the same movement which swept through the Middle east and North Africa following the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi  in Tunis on 17 December 2010. Just like in Syria, the main demands were for democracy, against corruption and against the poverty caused by the neo-liberal economic reforms. The movement against the Assad regime has been forced into a phase where military actions are taking place instead of mass popular demonstrations. But it should still be considered as a movement for democracy to be supported, while being critical of the methods and programme of the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army, and other opposition forces, including abuses they have committed as reported by Human Rights Watch.

Mass protests

The violent repression by the Assad regime of the mass peaceful protests in the early phases of the movement forced upon opposition activists the need to take arms to defend themselves. Large areas of the countryside are under the control of the opposition, and the Syrian army is unable to dislodge them from many towns such as Aleppo where fighting has been taking place for nearly a year. The city of Douma, north of Damascus with a population of 300,000, has cleared regime forces out of the area and established a democratically elected administration. The only way that the armed units of the opposition could maintain such a position is by having extensive support from the population who provide them with shelter and food.

The regime forces have been unable to inflict a significant military defeat against the opposition despite having superior equipment including tanks, artillery, planes and helicopter gunships. The armed opposition groups rely on small arms and rocket propelled grenades obtained in raids, from defectors or by being purchased, and with the odd tank or missile captured from the army. Reports of extensive supplies of sophisticated weapons from Western countries or Gulf states have not been confirmed by events in the battlefield.

The unfolding of events in Syria poses a big problem for the imperialist countries, such as the USA, Great Britain and France, who have had a historical interest in the area. Assad father and son, like Mubarak and Ben Ali, have been convenient allies over the last decades. While having part of Syria, the Golan heights, occupied by Israel since 1967 and giving refuge to 120,00 Palestinians, the regime has never threatened any action to upset the status-quo in the Middle East. The widespread opposition to Bashar Al-Assad means that imperialism can no longer do business with his regime.

Despite calls from the Syrian National Council (SNC) for western military intervention, such a course of action is fraught with dangers for the USA, Britain and France. These countries are certainly threatening intervention   should Assad use chemical weapons. But Syria is a well-armed country with up-to-date air defences provided by Russia, and it would not be possible to impose a no-fly zone as in Libya. Military intervention would open up uncontrollable events in the Middle East as Syria is supported not just by Russia, but also by Iran and Iraq. Furthermore Russia may be reluctant to let Bashar al-Assad go as it has its only military base outside of the former Soviet Union at the port of Tartus.

Imperialist intervention

The opposition forces are not reliable or strong enough allies for imperialism. The Syrian National Council (SNC)  is a group of regime opponents in exile and is dominated by political parties, notably the Muslim Brotherhood and liberals, linked to Western imperialism and their clients in the Gulf. The SNC has called several times for foreign military intervention in Syria. This is not a popular option in the opposition as Syrians remember the consequences of imperialist intervention in neighbouring Iraq, as their country had to accommodate over 1.5million refugees. Western military intervention would also stop the defections from the Syrian army and would provide an opportunity for al-Assad to appeal for national unity in defence of the country and confirm his claim that the opposition is a foreign conspiracy. These defections are beginning to be a significant factor in the uprising. Over a dozen generals have gone over to the opposition, including in December the chief of the military police.

There are other groups present in Syria which are fighting against the regime, including the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (a group inside the country, gathering together nationalists, left-wingers and Kurds), and the Watan Coalition of around 17 left-wing  political organisations, including the Syrian Revolutionary Left. At a local level inside the country, the main organizers of demonstrations, civil disobedience and strikes are the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a grassroots activist networks helping organize and document protests, the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution, Communist Co-ordination Committees and other local youth committees. There has been a long of history of left and communist organisations in Syria, some now active in the opposition such as the Revolutionary Left Current. These are the real forces of resistance have been the main targets of the regime since the beginning of the uprising.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is more a label behind which a series of independent armed groups operate and which is attempting to rally the armed groups behind a unified command. Although many armed groups are organised on “religious” lines, for many, but not all, this is due to the social origins of the fighters for whom religious practice is common, rather than these groups adopting a religious fundamentalist political orientation. It also ignores the fact that the opposition,  including the fighters, is not just Sunni but also Alawite and Christian. But since the outbreak of civil war, the regime has stoked up communalism and religious sectarianism to create divisions in the opposition and frighten off support.

Victory is possible

As the uprising approaches its second anniversary, the sacrifices, tenacity and widespread nature of the opposition has put Bashar al-Assad in weak position. He is unable to defeat the opposition, defections continue and his  control of cities and the countryside is tenuous. Victory against Assad is possible, but the opposition has to continue to be on a mass popular and democratic basis with the armed units acting in a supportive and defensive role, as it is not possible for it to defeat militarily the 300,000 Syrian army. Winning over the army’s rank and file conscript soldiers is a key aspect of weakening the regime. To continue to convince defectors to join the uprising, the opposition has to be pluralistic by welcoming every opponent of the dictatorship, regardless of their religious or ethnic origin. Areas and cities freed from regime control should organise on a democratic basis such as in Douma. To defeat al-Assad just like Mubarak and Ben Ali, the opposition has to appeal to every Syrian opposed to the dictatorship by fighting for democracy, against corruption and against the poverty caused by the neo-liberal economic reforms.

The left outside of Syria needs to give its solidarity to the opposition and campaign against all foreign intervention. This of course should not prevent us from being critical when sections of the opposition call for western intervention or commits abuses. But anyone concerned about human rights, should welcome the victory of the opposition and the downfall of Bashar al-Assad. We must oppose all foreign intervention, not just that of the USA, Britain and France, but also that of Russia, Iran and the Gulf states – countries not known for their respect of human rights. That is the only way to ensure that it is the people of Syria themselves who should determine independently and freely their own future. The toppling of the Assad regime by the democracy movement would bring about a much deeper change in the state and society in Syria than it did in Egypt or Tunisia, as it would also be a defeat for the army and the corrupt elites. It would give confidence to the democracy movement in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries to continue their fight for deeper changes. A victory for the Syrian uprising will open a new front of popular resistance against the imperialist powers in the Middle East.


Militarization, military intervention and the absence of strategy

Contribution to meeting of Syrian opposition; Monday 21 November 2011, by Gilbert Achcar, http://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2384

Syria: Open letter to the British Stop the War Coalition, or real solidarity is needed! Khalil Habash, 24 May 2012; http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article27276

One Year After the Beginning of the Revolution, Thursday 12 April 2012, by Khalil Habash; http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2573

Nature, rôle et place de la résistance armée en Syrie, July 2012, Khalil Habash, http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article27275

Intervention in Syria risks blowback and regional war, Seumas Milne, The Guardian, Wednesday 19 December 2012; http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/19/intervention-syria-al-qaida-blowback

Who’s in the Syria driving seat as the US and NATO prepare for military intervention? 14 December 2012, Lindsey German; http://www.stopwar.org.uk/index.php/syria/2123-who-is-in-the-driving-seat-as-we-reach-the-endgame-in-syria

Free Duma – popular councils and democracy from below, Wednesday 26 December 2012, “Front Line”, organ of the Revolutionary Left Current, October-November 2012; http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2840

Foundation of the Dera’a section of the Revolutionary Left Current, Wednesday 26 December 2012; http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article2841



The Philosophy of Recognition: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives-Hans-Christoph Schmidt Am Busch and Christopher F. Zurn (eds)

Posted by admin On December - 19 - 2012 Comments Off on The Philosophy of Recognition: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives-Hans-Christoph Schmidt Am Busch and Christopher F. Zurn (eds)


The Philosophy of Recognition: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
Lexington Books, Plymouth, 2010. 378pp., £59.95 hb.

Reviewed by Bryan Smyth
Bryan Smyth (basmyth@memphis.edu) teaches philosophy at the University of Memphis.
ReviewSince the 1990s, the notion of ‘recognition’ has occupied a prominent place within philosophical and political discourse. Based on the idea that subjectivity is formed intersubjectively, the central claim is that a necessary condition of authentic selfhood is to have one’s identity appropriately acknowledged by others. Just what is meant by identity and what such acknowledgement of it would entail has always been a matter of lively debate. But it is widely accepted that at least in cases of systemic oppression, misrecognition by others is a complicit harm. The political implications of this could be quite radical – think, for example, of Fanon’s analysis of racism in the colonial context – and it is a perspective with which most Marxists would sympathize. Yet it is also the case that identity-based recognition theory represents a repudiation of Marxism. Emerging in the wake of the new social movements of the 1970s and 80s, this approach belongs to the ‘cultural turn’ that rejected the perceived reductionism of historical materialism, especially its commitments to the priority of economic issues and the strategic centrality of the working class. So while a Marxist may sympathize with recognition struggles of this sort, she might simultaneously maintain that they are premised on an idealist reification of identity that will ultimately thwart any radical intentions they may have.

Structuring the typical Marxist perception of recognition theory, this tension may explain why, certain exceptions notwithstanding, this theory has not had much of an impact within Marxism. But even though there are real worries about the politics of recognition, this situation may be disconcerting. After all, much of the discourse of recognition tracks issues that remain areas of relative weakness within Marxism, and it would be unfortunate if a defensive reaffirmation of the received understanding of materialism were to obstruct the possible appropriation of productive conceptual resources. This is not to say that Marxism should ever align itself with a theory built on incompatible premises. But it is to open the question as to whether the cultural dynamics of recognition have a materiality which, even if it challenges traditional Marxist assumptions, does indeed fall squarely within the purview of historical materialism. That there could be a genuinely Marxist theory of recognition is entirely plausible, and so it would behove Marxism to explore this possibility if it could mean gaining a more analytically and normatively complex account of social injustice and of the emergence of revolutionary opposition to it.

This volume offers much food for thought along these lines. Following an introductory survey by Christopher Zurn, there are fourteen essays: the first seven take a primarily historical approach, while the rest have a more contemporary focus. This review will focus on those contributions that relate most closely to the philosophical concerns of Marxism.

Historical approaches to recognition have been especially concerned with Hegel, and this is reflected here with essays by Michael Quante, Ludwig Siep, and Terry Pinkard. Quante’s discussion is the most historically detailed, but it is limited to the Phenomenology even though Hegel had more and better to say on the theme in some of his earlier Jena works. Siep likewise limits his historical reflections to the Phenomenology, but mostly tries to relate Hegelian considerations to several contemporary problems in order to question the theoretical value of recognition. Pinkard also brings a Hegelian approach to current questions, but to somewhat greater effect. Focusing on the relation between recognition and the good, he shows that the former cannot be conceived in terms of right alone, but that it has substantial implications in terms of social goods—a salutary, if entirely uncontroversial, point from a Marxist perspective. Although these contributions are not especially remarkable, this sort of scholarship is useful inasmuch as a Marxist theory of recognition would require some new reading of Hegel.

But not only Hegel. Jay Bernstein contributes an excellent essay in which he reconstructs the basic arguments from Fichte’s Foundations of Natural Right that purport to ‘materialize idealism’ by integrating recognition with the materiality of embodiment in an account of the transcendental conditions of an egalitarian social order based in freedom. This work stands alongside other recent Fichte scholarship that disposes of the misleading image of him as a nutty ‘subjective idealist’. To be sure, there are, as Bernstein points out, some major problems with Fichte. But in terms of locating the philosophical antecedents of Marx (in abstraction from questions of direct influence), there is certainly a case to be made – not that Bernstein makes it – for the importance of Fichte’s ‘transcendental anthropology’.

In an essay that may be profitably read alongside Bernstein’s, Daniel Brudney reconstructs Marx’s vision of communism circa 1844 in terms of intersubjective recognition. Specifically, Brudney portrays the young Marx’s idea of a ‘true communist society’ as one in which production and consumption are institutively rooted in ‘mutual concern’ as a distinct sort of ‘practical attitude’, and this in a way, moreover, that shows that such a society would be a ‘well-ordered’ one in the Rawlsian sense. For anyone who dismisses the 1844 Manuscripts altogether this will be completely inconsequential. But otherwise it offers a very auspicious way to shore up the normative coherence and ideal feasibility of the idea of communism.

Turning to the contemporary side of things, Nancy Fraser’s essay ‘Rethinking Recognition’, originally published in New Left Review in 2000, is reprinted here. Although now slightly dated, this piece still conveys well some of Fraser’s core ideas: the rejection of any identity-based conception of recognition, and its replacement with a status-based conception in which the harm of misrecognition is understood not in terms of distorted subjective identity, but as the denial of ‘participatory parity’ within society. Among other things, this would allow for a more objective assessment of recognition struggles (many are, after all, reactionary). More importantly, it would counter what she perceived as the unacceptable displacement by claims for recognitive justice of more fundamental economic issues of distributive injustice. Fraser does not dismiss the legitimacy of the former. Her point is just that however interwoven they may be with struggles over economic inequality, struggles for recognition transpire at a distinct cultural level in a way that necessitates an at least dual approach to social justice. (In theoretical terms, this is based on the Habermasian distinction between ‘system’ and ‘lifeworld’, understood functionally and hermeneutically respectively.)

Marxists might be tempted by this. For it can be taken as responding to the rejection of Marxism by identitarian recognition theory by reaffirming the priority of economic justice while also embracing cultural struggles for recognition. But is this coherent? The worry would be that the connection between the respective dimensions of injustice is ultimately arbitrary—no compelling reason could be given as to why they couldn’t be remedied separately, or at least why recognition couldn’t be achieved through social reforms devoid of redistributive measures. But Marxism’s conception of capitalism as a totality militates strongly against such division.

The basic issue is thus poorly posed if it is seen as concerning the relation between justicial struggles located in social spheres that differ in kind. The problem with Fraser is that in adopting the system/lifeworld distinction, she (like Habermas) effectively reiterates the old base/superstructure model in a way that precludes any coherent alternative to economism or idealism. Some theoretical distinctions need to be drawn, of course. But to hive off the economy as a distinct domain is politically problematic and possibly unfounded from a materialist perspective.

This brings us to the centre of gravity of contemporary recognition theory: the work of Axel Honneth (the volume has four contributions related to this, including one by Honneth himself). The œuvre that Honneth has developed since the publication of The Struggle for Recognition (1992), and especially since he became director of the Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt in 2001, represents a methodical ‘reactualization’ of left-Hegelian social philosophy as, following Horkheimer, an immanent critique of capitalist society with ‘emancipatory intent’. It is with Honneth’s work especially – and whether it can be given a compelling materialist interpretation – that Marxists interested in recognition need to grapple.

The core of Honneth’s theory of recognition is an account of the fundamental types of normative interaction that condition autonomous individual self-realization. The most contentious of these concerns relations within the social division of labour (construed as broadly as possible) that support ‘self-esteem’ through the valuation of work as a contribution to societal goals. Honneth develops this in his contribution to the present volume. Inspired by Hegel, the critical task here is to disclose the implicit normative infrastructure of the capitalist organization of labour – for example, principles concerning fair wages and meaningful work – and to articulate this as a resource for ideological struggles over the interpretation of social goals and the terms of distributive justice. Key here is the claim that those normative principles have a ‘validity surplus’, in that they retain transformative leverage over institutions that fail to embody them fully. The upshot is thus that instead of reducing recognitive to economic justice, or else dualizing them, economic injustice is seen as supervening on social disesteem such that its redress – in addition to whatever else it may entail – is best understood as a recognitive ideal.

This may seem wildly naïve. But the underlying motivation is solid: rejecting the system/lifeworld distinction, and thus conceiving the economy in terms of social rather than system integration. For otherwise economic structures are placed beyond the range of critique and intentional transformation. Indeed, seemingly anonymous and ‘norm-free’ economic imperatives couldn’t be conceived to function at all, and to affect people’s lives as they do, unless they were in fact embedded in a normative totality. Honneth’s theory thus takes the form of an action-theoretic monism grounded in the dynamics of social interaction, for this is where culture and economics intersect concretely.

Three other essays make contributions favourable to this theory. Hans-Christoph Schmidt am Busch undertakes a critical examination of the conception of social esteem, and ultimately finds that indeed a theory of recognition along those lines can obviate the need for a separate functionalist account of the capitalist economy, such that a rigorous analysis and critique of capitalism could be made on the basis of such a theory alone. Emmanuel Renault and Jean-Philippe Deranty – who have each made important Marxist-inspired contributions to the field – are also positively inclined to Honneth’s general approach. But understanding it as attempting a ‘redemptive critique’ of Marxism, they appreciate critically that on its own this theory is insufficient and must be extensively supplemented with a more comprehensive social theory. Renault thus aims to deflect Marxist criticisms of Honneth that are based on the incorrect assumption that his theory of recognition is itself intended to be such a theory, and hence to leave space for a possible rapprochement. To this end, Deranty presents some stimulating suggestions as to how the need for a credible political-economic framework might be satisfied. With reference to institutionalism and regulation theory, which emphasize the cultural and normative embeddedness of economic phenomena, Deranty shows that viable resources are available with which to explain the complex coordination of the economy in terms of social integration. The crucial thought lies in the observation that Marxists are as guilty as anyone in perpetuating the myth that economics is some sort of hard science, rather than a hermeneutical one. For once we disabuse ourselves of that error, the prospects for developing a more complete theory of recognition on a materialist basis become significantly brighter.

There is much in this volume which could be taken up productively by Marxist philosophers toward a more sophisticated framework for theorizing the dynamics of contemporary class struggle. But one must beware of the Hegelian character of recognition theory, especially in the case of Honneth, the force and justification of whose work stems from the radical immanence of its standpoint. Marxism shares this refusal of nostalgic and utopian ideals, which is necessary for the unity of theory and practice. Yet it also runs the risk of leaving us, if not mired in the status quo, then at least unable to transcend its implicit normative horizons. It may seem highly unlikely that sufficient ‘validity surplus’ obtains in the normative infrastructure of contemporary capitalism to underwrite revolutionary social change. But if recognitive principles could be reconceived dynamically from the standpoint of, say, communism as ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’, then a dialectical bond between recognition and revolution might be found after all.


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